WASHINGTON, D.C. — The health officer for Montgomery County, Maryland, which is part of the Archdiocese of Washington, issued a directive July 31 that private, parochial and schools affiliated with religious institutions in the county must remain closed to in-person instruction though at least Oct. 1, 2020.

In response, Archdiocese of Washington officials announced Aug. 1 they will review the order and “decide how best to proceed for students and the entire community.”

“The Archdiocese of Washington continues to have the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and parents uppermost in mind and heart as we make our decisions regarding the reopening of our Catholic schools,” Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said Aug. 1.

“We will continue to strive to be both good citizens as well as to be faithful to our religious principles, pastoral mission and our obligations to our families,” he added.

Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County’s health officer, cited the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents, parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19.

He said his department issued the order because “the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers. We have seen increases in transmission rates for COVID-19 in the state of Maryland, the District of Columbia and the commonwealth of Virginia, particularly in younger age groups, and this step is necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents.”

He said he would “reevaluate the order before Oct. 1 to determine if it should be extended, terminated or amended in any way.” He noted that a violation of his directive could be punishable by up to one year in jail, a $5,000 or both.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan criticized the directive.

“I strongly disagree with Montgomery County’s decision to mandate the closure of private and parochial schools,” he said in an Aug 1 tweet. “As long as these schools develop safe plans that follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community. This is a decision for schools and parents, not politicians.”

Gayles’ directive is in direct contrast to what Karen Salmon, the Maryland state superintendent of schools, said July 22: “With the state firmly in recovery, local systems will have the flexibility to determine, in consultation with their local health officers, how they will open, and which groups of students and staff will be able to reenter buildings.”

The archdiocese’s Aug. 1 statement noted that after it has reviewed Gayles’ directive, “the Schools Office will provide guidance to school leaders in the coming days on any next steps.”

The Archdiocese of Washington Catholic Schools Office created a task force that spent most of the spring and summer formulating an opening of schools plan. That plan was being finalized when Gayles issued his directive.

An Aug. 1 statement from the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office pointed out that it and Archbishop Gregory “have been working with school pastors and principals to finalize and approve individual Catholic school reopening plans.”

“These models (of reopening archdiocesan Catholic schools) include virtual at-home academic instruction, in-person academic instruction and a blended model that includes both virtual and in-person instruction for our students,” that statement said. “Great care has been taken by our school leaders to create reopening plans that follow all current state and national guidelines for reopening schools.”

In an earlier interview with the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper, Kelly Branaman, interim superintendent of Catholic schools, said the archdiocesan task force was formulating a plan on “reopening our schools in a manner that is safe for our students and faculty is our priority.”

“Health and safety protocols are being established based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, local health departments and local jurisdictions,” she said, adding that the task force was devising “habits and routines that promote safety and good health throughout our schools.”

Last February, when COVID-19 became more pervasive in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, the Catholic Schools Office began readying a pre-designed plan to ensure the education of students would not be interrupted.”

On March 13, after social distancing regulations and self-quarantine requirements were adopted by local governments in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Catholic schools closed their campuses, as did their public school counterparts. That day, the archdiocese implemented the distance learning plan.

“We hit the ground running, and did not lose a day of instruction. The Archdiocese of Washington is not small — to be that large and to pivot that quickly (to distance learning) without any loss of time is absolutely incredible,” Branaman told the Catholic Standard.

A combined total of about 26,000 students are enrolled at more than 90 archdiocesan and independent Catholic schools, pre-K through high school, in the archdiocese. The schools are the District of Columbia and Maryland’s Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties.

On July 30, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced public schools would begin the fall semester Aug. 31 with virtual online classes. This was a reversal from her earlier statement that public schools would open with a hybrid combination of in-person and online classes.

Bowser said the virtual classes would continue until at least Nov. 6, the end of the first term. She said school officials would then assess whether or not to shift to a hybrid instruction model.

Prince George’s County Public Schools students will continue distance learning at the start of the school year, Aug. 31, through at least January 2021. In Calvert County, officials announced July 24 that public schools will begin Sept. 1 with online instruction through at least the first semester and convert to a hybrid model when it is deemed safe to do so.

The Charles County Board of Education said July 14 that the school year would begin Aug. 31 with virtual learning for all students, with the goal of quickly transitioning to in-person instruction for special populations of students.

St. Mary’s County public schools open Aug. 31. For September, all classes will be virtual and taught online. In October and November, a hybrid education model with some in-school instruction and some online instruction will start to be phased.

St. Mary’s Ryken High School, a Xavierian-sponsored school in Leonardtown, will begin classes Aug. 25 with in-person instruction two consecutive days a week combined with online instruction three days a week.

Szczepanowski is managing editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.